Volume VIII, No. 2, Winter 1980
LIFE IN A LOG CABIN
When my grandmother, Mabel Wilson, was a young wife living with her husband and children in a one room log house, she went through almost the same procedure every morning. She slowly rose out of the warm depths of the soft feather tick, already alert, planning her full day. Her husband turned over in bed, fighting the need to get up by dozing a little longer. She dressed in the grey light filtering through the window from the pre-dawn sky. This was her favorite time of day, for it was the only time she had to herself to collect her thoughts. She moved across the crowded room to the kitchen area to light the kerosene lamp and begin breakfast.
Awakened by the clatter of the pans my grandfather, Robbie, slowly rolled out of bed, almost waking the baby, LouElla. After pulling on his old overalls over his cotton long johns and chambray shirt, he put on his old straw hat and started outside to do the chores. As he stepped over the older children on the floor sleeping on the soft pallets, several turned over and then settled back to sleep.
My grandmother let the children sleep a few more minutes as she walked quietly to the wood box and picked up the last small pieces of kindling to put in the cook stove. Later in the day she would need to send the smaller children out to gather more chips from the wood pile. She lit the wood with the few matches that were left, noticing that they would need to take a trip to town on Saturday, for their supplies were running low.
The fire started slowly as if the wood resented the early morning hours, but soon the sparks ignited the wood. Looking at the small faces of her sleeping children, she sighed contentedly. As if reminded of her purpose, she quickened her pace and began her work.
She leaned over to shake her sons. The girls got up slowly when their mother called them. It would be a busy day. Since the girls were older than their brothers, they had to help their father in the fields. After breakfast the pre-school boys would try to help their mother work in the garden before the day would become too hot. While Peggy and Louvena rolled up the quilted pallets and slid them under their parents' bed, Coralee set the table for breakfast. Underfoot, Jack and Dan were shooed away from the main part of the room. They quietly washed and dressed, watching the activity of the family.
Even as a child, I was curious about the way my mother's family lived. I can barely remember the cabin when they lived there because I was four when Granny, Grandpa and my youngest uncle, Charley, moved from there to a larger house a quarter of a mile away. But I do remember that it was crowded, even then when most of the children were grown and gone. Looking back I can see myself being rocked by my grandmother in the hickory rocking chair she made herself and looking around the small room cluttered with chairs, boxes, dressers and beds. Even though I was very small, I remember the security and warmth.
Many young people now complain of hearing their parents relate over and over all the trials and deprivations they suffered in growing up. I certainly hear this a lot from my mother, Coralee. As the second child in the family, much of the work fell on her and her older sister. Around my house I often hear, "You can walk instead of driving. I had to walk four and a half miles to school every day no matter what the season," or "Why are you complaining because your brother went in your room? I never had my own room. In fact, I had to sleep in the kitchen on the floor." I can't complain because it is true. She really did grow up under these circumstances. Everyone got up early, worked all day and went to bed late at night. When they worked, they worked hard. "We worked six days a week, all day long. When we worked, we couldn't joke or laugh for then we weren't working," she explained. "On the seventh day we went to church and afterwards we rested. We really didn't mind because that's what we had to do. We didn't think anything about it because that's what everyone around Eldridge had to do and we weren't any different. We noticed the difference when we started high school in Lebanon because it was a "big city" school and we were just country kids."
As I grow older, that childhood curiosity is turning to fascination about how my family survived living in very close quarters, how they made a living on such poor land and how they managed with only the bare necessities. But even more fascinating to me is their satisfaction and pride. Now when I visit the shell of the cabin with Granny, I ask her a million questions about how eight people lived in the one room log cabin back in the woods.
"Six of my children were born in this cabin," my grandmother said. "In those days doctors made house calls. We sent the children to the relatives when the time came, except when the last girl, LouElla came. She was born the day of a snow storm, and Robbie couldn't get out to get the doctor. So we hung a blanket in the corner for privacy and Robbie took care of us. There was nothing else we could do because LouElla wouldn't wait.
"First came Peggy, then Coralee, then Louvena. And then Jack and Daniel. The first four children took after me and had light complexions and red hair. Daniel and LouElla took after Robbie and are very dark complected and have black hair. Charley, who is the baby of the family, was born after we built the second room. He also has red hair.
"We had to manage the best way we could with the stuff we had to store because we only had the one room and we couldn't keep a lot in it. We did have the loft but there was a lot of things we needed in the main house. We had trunks in the attic that we stored winter clothes in during the summer and summer clothes in the winter. We'd shift the storage with the season. And we had lots of quilt pieces and things like that stored up there. For a while we had a bed up there that the children slept in sometimes in the summer. If someone came, some of the kids would go up there, but we didn't sleep in it steady because, for one thing, it was too hard to heat. So we couldn't use it in the winter. I imagine it was as cool in the summer as it was downstairs because up high it would catch all the air. There was a window in each end and that would give it a circulation of air. The attic had a trap door and a ladder on the wall.
"Everything had its own little niche to sit in. If we took anything out to use, we put it right back as soon as we were through. That's the way we managed. We were organized.
"For cabinets we had some apple boxes. We'd make shelves of them. We put them along the wall on the kitchen side. There was one box for each child and then there was a box or two extra that we stored other things in. The kids kept loose stuff in there. Then we had a wardrobe in the main room. Anything that they could hang up, they hung up. We had some little dynamite boxes we made into what we called the drawer boxes. The four girls had a drawer apiece for little things like beads or jewelry.
"We used the kitchen table for about everything. When it was bedtime we had to move it over because it didn't fold up. We had six chairs and then two drawer boxes we sat on. When the meal was over, we'd push them under the table. We had a pretty good size wood cook stove in the kitchen area and heating stove in the living room part. They were back to back and used the same flue. The heating stove in the living room was a little heater about the size of a cream can. Instead of laying the wood down you set it up on end. That was the only stove I ever saw like that.
"We didn't have any refrigerators. We finally got an ice box and we'd get ice during the summer. In the winter I had a cupboard outside at the back of the house under the window that was fastened up that I could put food in and keep. We had to go outside to get to it. We'd put food in it and close it up and nothing could get to it. Then when I was baking pies or cakes or anything that I wanted to cool quick, I'd open my window and set it there on a shelf. The window box was screened on the outside so the air could get in and nothing could bother it."
"The one room was twelve by fourteen," my mother said, "and in that one room we had the table and chairs, a cook stove, a kitchen cabinet, the wood box, a heating stove, a small closet, a big rocking chair, a dresser and a full bed where Mommy and Daddy slept. The youngest child always slept with them until they had a new baby.
"We took baths right before bed whenever we needed them. Mom always said, 'We may be poor but we're not low class. The difference is a bar of soap.' We would heat a wash pan of water on the stove, and then just hang a blanket across the corner for privacy. We set the pan on a kitchen chair in the corner, stood there and washed with a rag, soap and water. We didn't have bathrobes or pajamas or anything. We put on our flannel gown that Mommy made us, but in the winter we always wore our underwear to bed because it was so cold we had to have layers on under our gowns."
Much of the house still shows the evidence of how the family lived. The cabinet still sits by the log wall of the cabin underneath the window box that was used to cool bread, pies and cakes. Inside the cabinets still hang on the walls and although the walls, ceiling and floors are falling, the ladder is still partially hanging on the wall and the lard cans used for storing clothes and cloth pieces are precariously balanced on the boards that were once the floor to the attic. And even though the house is very different from when the family moved out, the early morning sun shines from the east through the window in the front door. Photos by Mary Schmalstig and Kathy Long.
Granny added, "We had wires up across the house and we could throw a blanket or something on it as a curtain for privacy. When you needed it you put it up. The curtain was not up all the time but we had the wires up high where they didn't bother us."
Grandpa started the farm in 1920 soon after he came home from World War I by buying forty acres of land on Hickory Hollow for thirty-three dollars. "Most years I just kept up the interest," he once said. "The Ozark hills are a poor man's country. You come in poor and you stay poor. The last years haven't been so bad with the kids all grown. But it took all I could scrape together to raise them. I done a little of everything--sawmilling, threshing, working out and I even went up to Iowa and worked for the highway department once. But we always ate and we always paid our honest debts."
Immediately after buying the land, he built the log cabin up on the hillside overlooking the high bluff, Hickory Hollow and the hay fields. "He built the cabin up here on the hill instead of down by the spring," Granny explained, "because the air was so damp down in the hollow and also he didn't want to build on land where he could till. The construction materials were on the land, and building it himself cost very little. The logs for the walls and the shingles that he split out with a froe came out of oak off the land."
When my grandmother first moved there as a newlywed in 1931, it was a one room cabin with two windows, rough log walls and a wooden floor. "we finally got linoleum. Before that it was just the wood floor with a rock foundation.
"At first the insides of the walls were rough logs, then we took cardboard and tacked it up and papered it. It made it lots warmer and prettier, too.
"It had glass windows from the time I knew it. The only thing that was different was to begin with the front door was a solid door but I didn't like where I couldn't see out. Anything get after the chickens, I wanted to be able to see what was happening. So I talked Robbie into cutting a hole in the door, cutting a piece of glass and putting it in the door. There weren't any windows on the front of the house until we put that one in the door.
"They dobbed the house with clay mud. They'd mix it up to the right consistency and slap it in there. Before we moved, the dobbing was falling out. In 1962 we put the tarpaper on the outside walls to help keep it warm."
During the forty-six years Grandpa lived in the cabin, he managed to buy more land adjoining the original forty acres and build several additional outbuildings. He earned very little money because he either traded for what his family needed or produced it on the farm.
"In 1945 the neighbors had a working for us to help finish the second room of the house," Granny continued. "My husband had started the room because we were expecting our youngest. Then he broke his back when he was knocked off a load of hay."
Although this second room doubled the living space in the house, it measured only ten by twelve feet. After moving into the two rooms there was still a problem of space. "We'd put a bed in the kitchen of a night," Granny said. "After supper we set the kitchen table over. We had folding beds mostly and we rolled out a big bed for the boys. We'd fold that out in the kitchen area. Then we had three folding beds in the living room with the girls on one end and the side and Rob and I in the corner. All three were rollaway beds but during the day one had a board across the top, kind of a shelf so when the bed was folded up we could set things on it. Usually it would be boxes and stuff. We'd have to set that back off in a corner to fold it out. The beds were still about eighteen inches thick when folded. They must have been three and a half to four feet long. The children really appreciated them because they didn't have to sleep on the pallets anymore."
"The children carried much of the work load inside as well as outside. "One of the jobs the children had to do was carrying water from the spring," Granny said. "They'd start carrying water up when they were just little toddlers. They'd have their little buckets, also. Maybe it'd be just a little can with a bail, but they went and got their bucket, too. They were not allowed to go down there alone until they were about ten or eleven years old. An older one went with them. We used about three twelve-quart buckets of water a day. In hotter weather we'd use more. That wouldn't include washing. That was just normal use. We had a rain barrel by the front corner that caught the rain water from the drainage pipes around the roof. We used rain water for washing, mop water and so on because we had to carry water up that big hill for cooking and drinking and so on. Any way we could get the mop water and wash water easier, we did it.
"Robbie witched out here right by the house and found that the water was only thirty feet deep. We talked about having a well drilled but they said they thought it would be too hard to set a drill on the hillside. They started to dig a well with a pick and shovel but they got down ten or twelve feet and we decided to move up to the house on the road.
"In the summer we washed at the spring, which is a quarter mile down that steep hill. We had a big iron kettle down there, and we'd just take the clothes down in a tub. Then we had the tub to use and the iron kettle. In the winter we washed in the kitchen. If there was snow on the ground, we would melt that and use it for water or we went to the spring. We'd lay a tub on a stand and go after it with a washboard. We didn't always have a wringer. Part of the time we just wrung the clothes out with our hands.
"We had a lot of work to do and we all had to do it. We'd start the children in when they began to walk. We taught them how to do things when they were pretty small like working with the others and helping with things until they'd get to where they were capable of handling it. It seemed like they all had the idea that it was a family that had to work together, and so they did work together.
"We raised most of our own food. We had an orchard with pears, cherries, peaches and there was some apples down there. And every year we put out a garden. We canned a lot. One year we canned about 700 quarts of stuff. We had a cellar under the house where we stored most of our food. It wasn't very deep. We had to stoop to walk in it. We used the ladder that went up to the trap door in the attic. The trap door to the cellular was right there and we went on down the ladder. We stood there and reached around and moved stuff on the shelves to get what we needed. We filled all the shelves around and then I'd start stacking boxes in the middle. I'd have the cellar so full with what I canned until I had to stand on the ladder and reach down to take jars out of the boxes.
"We'd store potatoes in the cellar usually. If I didn't have enough room in the cellar we'd build a potato hill out in the garden. We'd dig down a little bit, line it all good with grass and hay and put the potatoes in there, cover it with grass and then cover it with dirt about six or eight inches. They wouldn't freeze. We'd bring in about a bushel at a time. That way we wouldn't have to open the hole up too often. The potatoes not used would start sprouting in March of the spring. We'd use those for seed potatoes if they were good. Some years they weren't so big and since they'd produce small potatoes we'd get fresh seed. We always had sweet potatoes. We packed them in sawdust and put them in the attic.
"We didn't have meat with every meal. Most of the time we had it once a day. We had chickens and it was my job to wring the chicken's necks. We didn't have hogs all the time but when we butchered the pork, we hung it in the smokehouse. We had cows most of the time but we didn't butcher beef. We'd buy it from the stores. You didn't say butcher to my husband. He wouldn't butcher a calf. I don't know why because he never would tell why. You just couldn't get him to butcher one.
"We also had wild meat like possum, coons, squirrels and rabbits in the winter months. Since we lived so close to the woods we got a lot of food from there. We picked up nuts and berries, too. Wild blackberries grew on the edge of the woods. So did raspberries, dewberries and huckleberries. So much of the places there would be just a few that grew at the place and there wasn't enough to pay the picker. Raspberries and blackberries were the main ones we got. One year we canned 300 quarts of blackberries alone. That year the two oldest girls were big enough that I left one of them home in the morning. She'd keep the little ones that were too small to go and she'd get lunch, and I'd take the rest of them and go pick until noon. I'd come in then and eat. Then we'd look the berries and I'd help can them. We'd go out and pick in the evening and get some more.
"We also picked up walnuts, hickory nuts and a few hazelnuts in the woods. We'd gather them when we could find them. The bushes and trees got burned out so much because people burned the woods off.
"Every once in a while someone would be burning and the fire would get away from them. Every spring we set fire to a fire break around the buildings. Sometimes the fire would come right to it. We'd get out with our gunny sacks and buckets of water and put it out if it tried to cross. I've fought fire sometimes until way in the night. I'll never forget one time we went to Lebanon. It was kind of late in the evening when we got back, and as we got up that big hill between here and Eldridge, we could see fire down in this direction. We just knew the whole place was burned off. It looked like it was over a forty acre field and we just knew the whole place was gone. As far as we come, there was a heavy smoke, so we couldn't tell what was left and what wasn't. Well, we got down here and it hadn't crossed any fire guard or anything. It just burned around it. I tell you that one time we appreciated seeing the old shack's roof sticking up out of the smoke."
Living in the woods brought animal pests as well as problems with burning. "There were plenty of snakes. We had copperheads and black snakes. Every once in a while a black snake would get in the house. I don't know how they got in--crawled in a mouse hole, maybe. I never bothered with that as much as I did getting them out. A snake is a snake, even if it's not longer than six inches. When the children went to the spring I cautioned them, 'Watch out for snakes. 'All right, Mama,' and here they'd go a-running, and I'd think, 'Oh, what if there's a snake!'
"When we were living in one room, back in the corner by the stove we had a woodbox about three and a half feet long and two feet wide of metal. I went to get wood out of there one day, and thought, 'That's an awful black-looking stick of wood.' It was a big black snake. And I thought, 'Now if I get after that thing in here, it'll get away from me.' So I got my rifle down and I laid the baby way back on the bed, and then I put the other two little girls on the bed and told them to sit still and keep quiet until I get this box out of here. I'd move the box a little then let it sit still until the snake would get quieted down. I got it clear outside before it tried to get out of there and I grabbed the rifle and shot it.
"Insects were bad, too. Of all the insects, gnats were the worst. In the evenings they'd eat you up if you didn't have some kind of smoke. We'd get a stewer and burn green leaves in it. It was called a smudge pot. It wouldn't blaze up but it would smoke a lot. We'd set that out here in front and the gnats would leave.
"They never did bother us, but I've heard panthers go down this hollow. They sound like some woman screaming. You can tell it was an animal sound instead of a human sound, but that's as near as I can tell what it sounded like. I never did see one, but the girls did. When the older girls were in high school, they stayed away and boarded at Eldridge because there were no buses down this far at that time. They was coming home from Eldridge one night and they saw one cross the field across from the road. They came back and said, 'Mama, I think we saw a panther up the road there,' and I asked, 'What did it look like?' They described it and they did describe a panther. Then that evening--they had been gone all week and the kids was all out playing because they were excited about being together again--one of the girls came to the door and said, 'Mama, come out and listen and you can hear what we heard and saw.' I came out here and sat down. It was screaming on down along the creek bed and went across up the hollow and up the hill over yonder. I heard it go off in the distance. Every little bit it would scream.
"We always kept bees. I always liked them, and though they never bothered us, they did a neighbor. When Peggy, our oldest, was a baby, we had a bee hive under the tree by the chicken coop with the back turned toward the house, so when the bees flew out, they'd fly the other way. I always put her out here on the porch in her basket in the shade when it would get hot, and they never bothered her at all. My husband had the grindstone put in the shade of that tree. One of the neighbors come down here to. grind his ax every now and then. He did quite a lot of hunting, and this one day when he came, he'd got skunk all over his clothes. Bees cannot stand a bad odor, so they put him out of the yard in nothing flat. He threw his ax down on the ground and started to run in the house, and then he thought about the baby. She was here on the porch, so he ran on past and on down there through the woods. Well, I heard him just rolling and rolling. It sounded like an old cow a-rolling, and then after awhile he came back, and he peeped around the corner real cautious. I said something to him, and he said, 'I'd sure like to have my ax but I wouldn't go after it,' and I said, 'That's no problem.' I just walked out there and picked his ax up from behind the bee hive. My husband and I never did forget that because we got such a laugh out of it. The neighbor didn't say anything about getting stung. I think he was just scared mainly.
"It used to be real pretty up here. The clearing went down just enough for a barn lot below and then the garden. Of course, the timber that was there wasn't thick, but the timber did come almost to the cabin. The drive circled in the timber.
"Over there to the left used to be the garden clear down to that big rock. There was a row of grapes, and then between the grapes and the fence and down into the garden was a strawberry bed. There was a row of plum and apple trees down at the bottom of the garden. In the spring of the years when it was so nice down here, they'd all be in bloom at the same time, and you could smell them clear to the top of the hill. They smelled so good. There weren't any trees high up around the yard and bluff and we had a beautiful view. We could see the fields down there in the hollow. It was all open and green. Sometimes we'd see deer down there.
"The yard used to be smoother than it is because the rain has washed it. It doesn't look like much now, but it used to be a real pretty place. The yard was so sloped we had to do something so we put the terraces here. It looked nice. Those rocks around the house were just a border around there to keep the dirt from washing away. Sometimes we'd have flowers in there, but I didn't have a lot of time for flowers. I did plant a few but not to a great extent. We planted several flowering bushes.
"There was the redbud. My husband and I said we almost killed out the old redbud bush getting switches. They were keen little switches. They'd get more good. The kids would get into something they knew they shouldn't be into, and when they'd see Daddy start for the bush, they'd look at each other and straighten up right then.
"We planted that lilac bush sitting in the corner of the terrace. The terrace had a table on it. We'd eat out here a lot of the time, at mornings and at noon and sometimes at night. There was a huge persimmon tree that shaded it. It was so cool and nice."
Standing beside me on the terrace in the shade of the old persimmon tree, Granny took one last sentimental look at the yard and the old cabin. Then we slowly started to the modern house she now lives in, walking up the overgrown path that was once a well-worn road.
"I wouldn't have missed that life for anything," she said. "I told my husband a year or two ago, 'We left the best part of our lives down here when we moved.' At the time I lived here I was satisfied. I had my family and my home. What more could I want?"
Just a little log shack,
With the timber out back.
Not much for anyone to see,
But somehow it means
Home sweet home to me.
Just that little log shack,
With the sun to its back,
Just slipping down behind the hill
Is all that it takes to make
An evening of content for me.
No stranger's eye could see
The treasures that little log shack
holds for me,
The faith and love that meet me at
Just an ugly little place,
With a very homely face,
That looks to the east with hope.
It's not what you see
That brings contentment to me,
In that little log shack on the hill.
Mabel Wilson 1962
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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